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Journal of Accounting and Economics 12 (1990) 3-13.

North-Holland

ACCOUNTING AND THE THEORY OF THE FIRM

Ronald H. COASE
Uaicersig of Chicago Luw School, Chicago, IL 6M37, USA

Received December 1988, final version received February 1989

This paper describes the background and objectives of a series of papers written fifty years ago at
the London School of Economics (LSE). One objective was to encourage the use of accounting
numbers in economic research. A second objective was to improve the theory and practice of
accounting. Understanding cost accounting and opportunity costs within a firm was tied to
understanding the organization of firms. The theory of the accounting system is part of the theory
of the firm. Like a similar request made fifty years ago, the paper concludes with a call for
interdisciplinary studies between economics and accounting.

This paper will be largely autobiographical and will mainly be centered around
what happened at the London School of Economics fifty or more years ago. In
1937 my article The Nature of the Firm was published, based on ideas I had
developed some years earlier. It has since been reprinted on several occasions
and has been much discussed, particularly in recent years. One year later, in
1938, I wrote a series of articles for The Accumtunt entitled Business
Organization and the Accountant, articles which have also been reprinted and
referred to in the literature, although not nearly to the same extent as The
Nature of the Firm. At any rate, in the 1930s I was working on both
accounting and the theory of the firm. Today I want to discuss the relation
between these subjects.
I explained how I came to be interested in and to write on the theory of the
firm in some lectures on The Nature of the Firm which I gave at Yale last
year and which some of you may know. I will now explain how I came to be
interested in and to write on accounting. In my Yale lectures I disclosed,
which may be somewhat surprising given that my career has been that of an
economist, that I did not take any course in economics while I was a student
at the London School of Economics, a circumstance which I believe gave me a
freedom in thinking about economic problems which I might not otherwise
have had. The position with regard to accounting is quite different. I took a
degree in commerce, with the thought that I would go into business. As I chose
the Industry group in my final year, an option supposedly designed for those
who were going into works management, I took courses in works and factory
accounting and cost accounting as well as financial accounting. I learned,

0165-4101/90/$3.50~1990, Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. (North-Holland)


4 R. H. Coax, Accountingand theov of the firm

among other things, that there were many methods of calculating depreciation,
valuing inventories, allocating on-costs, and so on, all of which gave different
results but all of which were perfectly acceptable accounting practices. In
addition, there were, of course, practices which were not acceptable and which
should not be countenanced by any accounting firm which aimed at re-
spectability.
As we were to discover, the views that I and my young colleagues at the
London School of Economics (LSE) came to hold were considered by a
number of accountants (including the head of the accounting department at
LSE) not to be respectable and, indeed, it would not be going too far to say
that they were thought to be sacrilegious. The books that had been entrusted
to the accountants keeping were apparently sacred books. Those most in-
volved with this critique of accounting practices were Ronald Edwards and
Ronald Fowler. Edwards, after the war, became Chairman of the Electricity
Council, which was responsible for the operations of the British electricity
supply industry, and later became head of Beechams, the pharmaceutical
company. But in the middle 1930s he was a humble assistant lecturer like
myself. He had worked in an accounting firm and taken the external B. Corn.,
studying with the Commerce Degree Bureau (which organized correspondence
courses under University auspices). His work as a student with the Commerce
Degree Bureau brought him to the attention of Arnold Plant and, as a result,
he was appointed in 1935 to a position in the newly formed Department of
Business Administration at LSE.
Ronald Fowler, who had been a fellow student of mine, wrote a book in
1934 on The Depreciation of Capital and worked with Plant on a project which
surveyed annually the costs of British department stores (an investigation
modelled on a similar one carried out by the Harvard Business School).
Fowler joined the Department of Business Administration after Plant became
its head. As a result of his work on depreciation, Fowler developed a keen
interest in accounting theory.
Edwards played the leading role in our study of accounting and the work of
accountants, and following his initiative the Accounting Research Association
was formed in 1936, with the active cooperation of the Librarian of the
Institute of Chartered Accountants, Cosmo Gordon. The work with which I
was associated had two aims. The first was to show economists that the
accounts provided valuable source material for economic research, and the
other was to persuade accountants to change their practices so as to make
the accounts more valuable for this purpose by, for example, not lumping
together disparate items and by adopting more uniform methods which would
facilitate the aggregation of the accounts of dilTerent companies. We were not
content merely to stop there but went on to show economists what could be
done and accountants what should be done. We did this by making an
R. H. Cease, Accountingand theory of thejrm 5

economic study of the British iron and steel industry, using the accounts of
public companies.
The paper Published Balance Sheets as an Aid to Economic Investiga-
tion - Some Difficulties came out in 1938 and recounted the difhculties we
had encountered in carrying out our investigation. We started by asserting that
balance sheets, in so far as they are reliable and the conventions on which
they are based are thoroughly understood, will provide the economist with
much material for applied study and we pointed out that what we said was
based on an examination of approximately 2,000 balance sheets. In summing
up, we said that in drawing attention to the difficulties in interpreting the
various items in the balance sheet, we were not claiming that the economist
could do better than skilled accountants. The aim of this paper is merely to
emphasize the problems as they are seen to users of balance sheets for
economic research. We concluded that some of the major difficulties are due
to the lack of uniformity in the practice of accountants, and also, which is to
some extent the reason for this, the obscurity of much of their reasoning and
the distinctions which they employ. It follows that an improvement in account-
ing theory would materially assist the work of economic research.
Later in 1938 we presented our findings on the iron and steel industry to the
annual meeting of the Association of University Teachers of Economics. It
aroused little interest. This was no doubt in part due to the Chairmans
introduction. Usually the Chairmans introductory remarks are so flattering
that ones heart sinks as one hears them, realizing that now whatever one says
must inevitably be a disappointment. In our case, the Chairman s introductory
remarks had a different character. They were uniformly hostile. I cannot now
remember what they were, but they expressed the view that the figures
provided by accountants were so unreliable that any attempt to use them for
economic research was vain.
Nevertheless, we continued with our work and in late 1939 or early 1940
The Iron and Steel Industry 19261935: An Investigation Based on the Accounts
of Public Companies (Special Memorandum No. 49 of the London and
Cambridge Economic Service) was published. Of course our methods of
analysis were extremely crude compared with those employed today. And the
fact that there were no computers severely limited the calculations that could
be made. All our computations were made by pencil and paper, with the aid of
a Monroe handcalculator. Nonetheless, whatever the value of our results, I
think we showed the potential usefulness of these accounting figures for
economic research. I will give as an example of what could be done the
discussion of the factors determinin g the demand for bank advances (one of
the parts of the study for which I was responsible).
It was then widely believed that bank credit played a crucial role in
generating and intensifying the business cycle and that this was particularly
6 R. H. Cease, Accounting and theory of thejrm

the case in the capital goods industries, industries which, in the view of some
economists, played a dominant part in the whole process. The iron and steel
industry can be regarded as the archetype of the capital goods industries. Our
analysis of these balance sheets showed that, at least so far as our sample was
concerned, the beliefs of some prominent economic theorists about the be-
haviour of bank credit were incorrect. Our figures confirmed the common view
that most borrowing from British banks was for relatively short periods, but in
other respects the results were quite unexpected. Analysis of the balance sheets
showed that increasing bank credit was associated with losses and declining
profits. The result was that, although with the onset of the depression in 1929
bank credit fell immediately, as the depression deepened bank advances to the
iron and steel industry rose; and when, in 1935 and 1936, profits began to
increase significantly, bank credit fell. Bank credit in the iron and steel
industry, far from exaggerating the effects of a business fluctuation, acted as a
cushion and as a moderating force.
In drawing attention to this part of our work, I do not wish to imply that
this was our most significant finding. I have mentioned it because it was a part
of the investigation for which I was largely responsible and with which
therefore I have greater familiarity. Other parts of the investigation dealt with
the movements of profits, undistributed profits, liquid balances, gross working
capital, stocks, work in progress, and so on, and some of these sections are no
doubt more important than that on bank credit.
We felt able to conclude that published accounts are a source of economic
statistics that ought not to be neglected. This view resulted in large part from
the fact that, by using the accounts to derive information about firm be-
haviour, it was possible to relate the figures about one kind of firm behaviour
to all other aspects of the firms position and behaviour. This still seems to me
a decisive advantage of using the accounting records.
The war intervened in 1939, and when it ended we did not return to this
work. Whether similar work has since been carried out by others I do not
know, but if it has, so far it seems to me that it has little effect on economic
theory. Certainly the vastly improved quality of published accounts (many of
the difficulties mentioned in our Accounting Research Association paper
would not now exist), as well as the improved methods of analysis, should
make it possible today to use the published accounts more fruitfully than we
were able to do.
I would not wish to leave you with the impression that the Accounting
Research Association was mainly concerned with the use of accounting
records for economic research. It was also, and probably more, concerned with
the improvement of the theory and practice of accounting. As part of this
effort, it conducted, by means of questionnaires, studies of the methods of
valuing raw materials, work in progress, and finished stock and of the methods
of calculating depreciation actually used in business - which enabled an
R.H. Cease. Accounting and theory of the firm 7

attempt at discovering how the method employed varied with the type of
business.
In the examination of the financial accounts, I was very much the junior
partner. Edwards knew about actual accounting practices, of which I was
completely ignorant. And both Edwards and Fowler knew more about ac-
counting theory than I did. My name appears first simply because in the
alphabet C comes before E and F.
I now turn from our work on financial accounting to that on cost account-
ing, and in our discussions of this subject I played a more equal role. My
published contribution consisted of twelve articles which appeared weekly in
The Accountant in 1938, entitled Business Organization and the Accountant.
These articles were written each Wednesday night and were published on
Saturday. They could be written in this way because I thought of them not as
presenting ideas of my own but as an exposition of views which were the
common property of the economists at LSE or, at any rate, of those with
whom I was associated.
That the ideas in these articles were in no sense original is apparent if one
also studies Edwards The Rationale of Cost Accounting, which appeared in
1937 in Some Modern Business Problems and which has been reprinted
elsewhere, or the paper of CL. Paine (another student of Plants), Some
Suggestions for Measuring the Relative Profitability of Competing Uses of
Floor Space and Fixed Equipment, or the writings of David Solomons, such
as his Cost Accounting and the Use of Space and Equipment (published in
1948 and reprinted in Studies in Costing). Solomons, of course, studied at LSE
under Arnold Plant, and in a letter which Fowler wrote to me in 1932 while I
was in the United States and which I have deposited in the Regenstein Library
of the University of Chicago, he refers to a very good paper on costs which
had just been given in Plants seminar by a student, David Solomons.
Originally, I had not intended to write a series of articles in The Accountant
dealing with costs and cost accounting. Edwards had suggested that I write a
series dealing with problems, of business administration. But when, in the
summer of 1938, I sent him a draft of an article on vertical integration
(whether to make or buy), Edwards complained bitterly that the accountants
for whose benefit the articles were supposedly written would not understand
what I was talking about, as the concepts and terminology I used would be
completely foreign to them. I therefore decided to write an introductory
section in which I explained the character of my approach. However, the
introductory section came to occupy the whole of the twelve articles, and
business problems were not discussed except as illustrations of the value of my
approach.
When I wrote these articles I had no idea that they would ever be reprinted,
as they were by Solomons in Studies in Costing and in Studies in Cost Analysis
and by Thirlby and Buchanan in LSE Essays on Cost, nor that they would
8 R. H. Coax, Accounting and theory of thefirm

ever be referred to in the literature. Had I known this, I would undoubtedly


have tried to be more careful in the writing - with the probable result that
these articles would never have been completed.
What these extremely simple articles did was to argue that in business
administration cost should be interpreted as opportunity cost and that the
approach should be marginal (concerned, that is, with variations in costs and
receipts). This kd naturally to a critique of the practices and doctrines of cost
accountants. The opportunity cost concept developed at LSE was of course
derived from Knight and Wicksteed as expounded by Lionel Robbins and was
also no doubt influenced by Hayek who would have added an Austrian
flavour.
As I have indicated, accounting as taught at LSE at that time had the aspect
of a religion. It is not, therefore, altogether surprising that these articles
resulted in my being given a public rebuke by S.W. Rowland, the head of the
accounting department at LSE, in an address given to the Accounting Re-
search Association in 1939, entitled Experience, Research and Speculation in
Accounting. He opened his reference to my articles with the following
sentences: If I particularize I do so with pure objectivity. I notice cases where
the impact of economic studies on accounting lays greater emphasis on the
speculative element than on experience. He then proceeded to ridicule the
opportunity cost concept after completely misunderstanding what I had said.
On other occasions, in The Accountant he attacked in a vitriolic way the views
of Edwards on the nature and measurement of income. In an article he
compared Edwards ideas to Dr. Johnsons leg of mutton, ill bred, ill fed; ill
killed, and ill drest, and in a letter in the correspondence columns he stated
that he regarded these ideas as dangerous nonsense made the more dangerous
by the fog of words in which assumptions are disguised as truths.
Later, in 1947, W.T. Baxter, who had written two papers on The Form of
Final Accounts for the Accounting Research Association, was appointed head
of the accounting department at LSE and relations with the economists
became very cordial. I should add that my articles also brought some criticism
from accountants in the correspondence columns of The Accountant. However,
we also found that we had some allies among cost accountants, and I
remember particularly those at the Gramophone Company (which was or
became part of EMI). Of course, we would tend to hear from those cost
accountants who supported our efforts.
Buchanan, in his book Cmt and Choice, has argued that the concept of cost
developed at LSE in the 1930s was special to that institution, and he claims
that my articles embody this particular point of view. He instances with
approval my linking of costs with the decision to be taken. I tie[d] cost to
choice, as Buchanan puts it. He also notes my rejection of any classification of
costs into categories such as t&d and variable independent of the identifica-
tion of the decision under consideration, and he makes other points of a
R.H. Cease, Accountingand theory of thejrm 9

similar character. Whether Buchanan is right in his thesis that these views on
cost were not those normally held by economists elsewhere I do not know. But
there is no question that I thought of these articles as presenting views which I
shared with my economist colleagues at LSE. As I said in an introductory note
when these articles were reprinted in LSE Essays on Cast: If Professor
Buchanans thesis about the special character of the LSE approach to costs is
correct, it is the fact that these articles do not represent a personal point of
view which gives them their historical significance.
The opportunity cost concept of the London tradition of the 1930s which
Buchanan had praised was to come under attack from a somewhat unexpected
quarter. In 1974, a collection of papers entitled Debits, Credits, Finance and
Profirs was presented to W.T. Baxter on his retirement from the chair of
accounting at LSE. J.R. Gould, a lecturer in economics at LSE, contributed a
paper in which he discussed Buchanans thesis and the London tradition.
Although his arguments were essentially the same as those he had put forward
in 1962 in Studies in Accounting Theory, in 1974, no doubt stimulated by
Buchanans book, he made detailed references to the writings of Edwards,
Baxter, Solomons, and myself. He says this of my use of the opportunity cost
concept: Coases specification of opportunity cost, if interpreted as a defini-
tion for use in computation, is at best supertIuous, and at worst downright
misleading. It is not a statement that one would be inclined to choose for
ones epitaph.
Gould gives, as an example of how my definition could mislead, the case of
a somewhat obtuse developer who interprets my definition of opportunity
cost in a business decision as the highest alternative receipts to mean the
highest gross receipts and who therefore does not deduct the costs that would
have to be incurred to secure those receipts. This does not seem to me a
substantial objection to the opportunity cost concept nor to its use in compu-
tation. Gould continues: A less obtuse developer would interpret opportunity
cost to mean highest alternative net receipts.. . . The correct decision would be
made - but the concept of opportunity cost has played no useful part in the
computations necessary to arrive at the decision. The net receipts of each plan
must be worked out before the opportunity cost of any one plan can be
computed; and once the net receipts are known the correct decision can be
made without further computation.
This is an interesting point, but consideration of it leads, I believe, to a
conclusion different from that drawn by Gould. For one thing, if net receipts,
that is, receipts minus costs, are to be calculated correctly, costs must be
calculated correctly, that is, they should represent opportunity costs. If, for
example, one of the plans requires the use of a material already in stock in that
business and that material cannot be sold and is of no use elsewhere in the
business, it would obviously be wrong to treat the cost of using that material
as being equal to the price that was paid for it in the past. It is, in fact, zero.
10 R. H. base, Accounting and theory of thefirm

All this I explained in Business Organization and the Accountant. But there
is a more serious objection to Goulds way of looking at the problem, and it is
one which takes us to the heart of the theory of the firm.
When I was starting to study economics some 60 years ago, it was quite
usual to illustrate the economic problem by considering how Robinson Crusoe
would make his decisions. He had all the resources of his island at his disposal,
but they were limited and he would not be able to achieve all he would like.
He had to choose. He would choose to utilize these resources in those
combinations which would yield that collection of products out of all possible
collections that, in total, he preferred. Some modern economists would say
that he maximized his utility. In reaching this position, Robinson Crusoe need.
make no explicit calculation of cost, although he might find it useful to place
on his bulletin board one beaver equals two deer or perhaps in his case fifty
coconuts equals one turtle.
Today, one would not be likely to start with this isolated man but with a
society containing many men. The economic problem faced is then not simply
to decide how one individual would use resources but also which individual
should use them. It is normally assumed that this society uses money and that
the actions of its members in the economic sphere are coordinated by a pricing
system. To secure the use of a resource it is necessary to pay at least as much
as someone else would. Consequently, prices are bid up until the amount
demanded equals the supply. A consumer faced with these prices would make
his purchases of the various goods and services so as to maximize utility. An
individual who used resources to make a product for sale would aim to
maximize profits, the difference between what he would receive for his product
and what he had to give up to obtain the resources required to make it. Costs
become explicit as a result of the existence of the demand of others for
resources. However, the prices of the products he sells and of the resources he
uses are not the result of any calculations he makes but are given to him as a
result of the operations of the market. Since, leaving aside the effects of
monopoly, the prices paid for resources must be equal or (slightly) greater
than they would yield in another use or to another user, cost (the price of the
resources) is opportunity cost, and resources will be employed in such a way
as to maximize the value of production.
This is probably the way that most modern economists look at the working
of the economic system, and it undoubtedly brings out some of its most
important feature. But, as Ive often said, it assumes that the operation of the
market is costless, which it is not. Resources are not employed in those uses
where they make the most valuable contribution, not because of the effect of
such factors as the cost of transport, which is commonly taken into account,
but because of the existence of what has come to be called transaction costs. I
have argued, and I need not repeat the argument here, that l%ms emerge
because they are able to achieve some of those more productive arrangements
of factors of production which, because of their cost, are made impossible if
R. H. Coax, Accounting and theory ofthejimt 11

one relies solely on market transactions.


I said in The Nature of the Firm (and I have not changed my mind) that
the expansion of a firm will halt at the point at which the costs which it has to
incur to organize an additional transaction within the firm become equal to the
costs of carrying out that same transaction on the market or to the costs of
organizing it within some other firm. But what determines where this point will
be? It cannot be said that we see very clearly the answer to this question,
although as a result of the work now going forward the mists are beginning to
clear. My present feeling is that, while transaction cost considerations un-
doubtedly explain why firms come into existence, once most production is
carried out within firms and most transactions are firm-tirm transactions and
not factor-factor transactions, the level of transaction costs will be greatly
reduced and the dominant factor determining the institutional structure of
production will in general no longer be transaction costs but the relative costs
of different firms in organizing particular activities. This does not mean that
transaction costs will not be important in particular cases nor that they will
not be important in determining the form of the contractual arrangements
made by firms. What it does mean, if I am right, is that, as I put it in my Yale
lectures, to explain the institutional structure of production in the system as a
whole it is necessary to uncover the reasons why the cost of organizing
particular activities differs among firms.
This leads us to a point of particular interest to the participants at this
conference. If economists are to study the determinants of the costs of
organizing various activities within firms, they will have to call in the assis-
tance of accountants since the costs of organizing clearly depend on the
efficiency of the accounting system. It is in this connection that Goulds view
that the opportunity cost concept is not useful for business computations,
since all that is required is to maximize profits, seems to me wrong. In a firm,
men also make decisions independently of those that others are making (there
is delegation of responsibility and all decisions are not the product of a single
mind) and when people in a firm use its resources, they often need to be given
some figure representing their costs, so as to be able to compare it with
receipts. Since using a resource denies its use to others, the figure for cost
should represent what it would yield elsewhere in the business. In this planned
society, the firm, costs do not, in the main, arise directly out of the operations
of the market but are computed and provided by the accounting system. While
outside the firm prices and therefore costs are explicit (because of the demands
of others for resources) and are determined by the operations of the market,
within the firm there are explicit costs for exactly the same reason but they are
provided by the accounting system. This internal system takes the place of the
pricing system of the market.
In Business Organization and the Accountant I was concerned that these
accounting calculations be properly made. But doing this is, no doubt, more
difficult in some circumstances than in others - and we need to know what
12 R. H. Cwce, Accounting ana theory of the firm

these circumstances are. When it is difficult, because of the particular activities


or combination of activities in which the firm is engaged, the costs of
organizing will be greater - either more mistakes will be made or additional
costs will be incurred to avoid making them. As a result, the activities which
we find firms undertaking must be influenced to some degree by their effect on
the efficiency with which the accounting system operates.
Most production in a Western economy is carried out in this planned
society, the firm, and when a firm decides not to take on another activity, what
normally happens is that it will be done by another firm, if it is done at all. In
a footnote in The Nature of the Firm, which so far as I know has never been
commented on, I argue that in a competitive system there is an optimum
amount of planning, and, I could also have added, an optimum quantity of
market operations. In understanding how in a competitive society the choice is
made between these alternative but interrelated means of organization, we
must take into account the role of the accounting system. The theory of the
accounting system is part of the theory of the firm. It is not my belief that the
secret to the determination of the institutional structure of production will
alone be found in the accounting system, but it certainly contains part of the
secret.
I suggested that the accounts could be a valuable source of data on firm
behaviour, and, if I am right, it follows that their use could greatly assist in the
development of a theory of the firm. Then I argued that a theory of the
accounting system is part of the theory of the firm. If this view comes to be
generally recognized, we may expect to see a growth in interdisciplinary
studies between economics and accounting. I hope this happens, and it would
certainly give me great pleasure to take up once again the investigation of
those interrelations between economics and accounting about which I and my
colleagues at LSE held such high hopes some fifty or more years ago concern-
ing what could be achieved. What I have foremost in my own mind is the gain
to economics that would result. But it seems reasonable to suppose that an
increased understanding of the part which accounting plays within the firm
will not be without some advantage to accounting.

References
Baxter, W.T., 1939a. The form of final accounts: Part A, Accounting Research Association
publication no. 4.
Baxter, W.T., 1939b. The profit and loss account, Accounting Research Asscciadon publication
no. 4.
Baxter, W.T.. 1940. The form of final accounts: Part B, Accounting Research Association
publication no. 8.
Baxter, W.T. and Sidney Davidson, 1962, Studies in accounting theory (Sweet and Maxwell).
Buchanan, J.M.. 1969. Cost and choice (Markham).
Cease, Ronald H.. 1937, The na!ure of the firm, Economica 9,386-405.
R.H. Coax, Accountingand theory of the firm 13

Cease, Ronald H., 1988, The nature of the firm: Origin, meaning, influence, Journal of Law,
Economics and Organixation 43-41.
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economic investigation: Some difficulties, Accounting Research Association publication no. 3.
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Rowland, S.W., 1938, The nature and measurement of income: A rejoinder, The Accountant, 483.
Rowland, S.W., 1939, Experience, research and speculation in accounting, The Accountant,
442-444.
Solomons, David. 1948. Cost accounting and the use of space and equipment, The Accountant,
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